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Judy Bell's story of re-entering society after 26 years in prison

Leila Day

Re-entering after time behind bars is some of the most volatile time for recovery. A recent California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report shows that within three years, over 60% of inmates recidivate, or re-offend, and return to prison within the first six months of their release.

One of the first things a newly re-released person needs is an address - a safe place to stay while readjusting to life outside the prison. The next steps for re-entry are to attend a series of classes during probation that can range from coping with substance abuse, family counseling, meetings with psychologists, to resumé building, computer courses and anger management. This adjustment is difficult for anyone, but for someone who has spent nearly half of their life behind bars, it can be an ongoing struggle to remain free, once on the outside. Former inmate Judy Bell spent 26 years at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla and shares her story.

"My name is Judy Bell. I was born and raised here in San Francisco, California. I'm predominately from the Bayview area--off of Third Street over by Candlestick Park.

I would say overall, I had a lot of challenges because I was placed in different homes, due to different things going on in my parents’ lives at the time. My mom at one time she was an addict and my father was an alcoholic. Drugs was my downfall, it was crack cocaine, that demon got hold of me in the early 80’s. They used to call it Such and Fry Daddies. And I thought it was cool. I thought I was being hip, smoking crack and running in the streets of San Francisco and living life on impulse.

My very first incarceration, meaning prison, was in 1988. And that's when I was convicted of second-degree murder.  The truth was that I did commit the crime. However, it was due to me and the lifestyle I was living at the time. It was never intended for no one to be hurt.  And it's ironic because I did come from a very wealthy family. I realize I got caught up in the fast life versus being more grounded in discipline with my family.

My sentence was 15 to life, with the possibility of parole, and I served 26 and a half years. That was so unreal to me. I felt like I had detached from myself. I was no longer present. I couldn’t even imagine that. And then I also feel like a part of me numbed up so bad that nothing even mattered after my mom passed away and I was being taken away from my kids due to poor choices I made at such a young age. I felt that nothing mattered no more, I'm gone.

You know it was negligent, what you did, someone lost a life due to it. That was very hard for me to sit with and come to terms with for a very long period of time. I was foolish, I was in my folly. So I don't feel that the system was wrong in the length of time they gave me, however I do feel like I pretty much got it before the 26 years lapsed.

I was just released in 2013. That was the happiest day of my life. I was given two hundred dollars gate money and the property that I had—and I was told that I would be back. Some of the staff were like very negative about my release but then there were some that were very happy in encouraging me and wishing me well. It was an emotional day. I seen some staff with tears in their eyes of joy, though.  And it touched me just to see that.

I immediately got in the car with my family. And we like trail-blazed. They were right behind one another, all the way from Chowchilla to San Francisco. We actually stopped over in Antioch and had breakfast at a nice restaurant. It was beautiful. It was just amazing. Just to be able to touch my children and run up and hold them. My son just cried. My daughter cried. You know, I still have, right now, I still have grandkids that I have not even met in person yet.

Walden House is a recovery home for women returning back into society. I put myself in the program because I knew it would work well for me. You go through three phases of the program, you got orientation, main treatment and then reentry. And in each phase of it you remain like six to eight weeks.

I love my bed because it's springy, it's comfortable and I have the window view because my bed is right by the window and I can slide and open and close too. I have my own little lamp right there beside my bed. It's homey, it's comfy for me- aside from the mold. I haven't had a bath in years, so to be able to just soak and close the door and there's a little radio that I can turn on my jazz in there, and just zone out and just totally relax, it's wonderful. So I'm enjoying that. And it's my little sanctuary.

At one time I was serving a life sentence and that was the language they used in that place to describe people. They would say, 'Oh, she's a lifer,' or 'She's a long-term'. It was more just like a jacket that was put on us, just being in the judicial system. And now, I don't call myself a lifer, but I know that, even in prison, I had to stop using that terminology because for so long as you continue to call yourself a lifer, you're going to think and act like a lifer.

I am more than a conqueror. I am better than I was before. And I am starting over stronger. I'll be fifty this year. And it's a huge blessing because I'll be turning fifty in the free world."

Judy Bell is working at her uncle’s dry cleaning store in Bayview and continues to live at Walden House in Treasure Island.  She will complete her re-entry program in September 2015.


Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.